Virtual Reality's Promise - and Threat HIGH-TECH ELECTRONICS

Article excerpt

VIRTUAL-reality technology has the potential to become a tool to enhance the quality of life, a window onto invisible worlds, and a liberating force for good minds trapped in bodies diagnosed as dysfunctional.

But the technology also has the potential to become a dangerous brainwashing device or a form of imprisonment through illusion.

The full potential of this technology will take 10 or 20 years to manifest itself. Now is an ideal time for a widespread public discussion of the benefits and liabilities of virtual-reality-based applications.

Virtual reality creates the illusion of immersion in an artificial world or of presence in a remote location in the physical world. To enter virtual reality, a person puts on a head-mounted display. A pair of tiny television tubes, special optics, and a device that tracks the position of the user's head are mounted in the display so that when it is worn, the normal view of the outside world is blocked.

In its place is a three-dimensional depiction of a "world model" that exists in a computer. The display is linked to the computer, and the user's motions are transmitted to the computer, which updates the world model.

You can look behind objects to see what is there. You can look at the floor or the ceiling. You can zoom upward and look down on the scene.

Instead of seeing a depiction of an artificial world on a flat screen, the user is literally surrounded by the depiction. This "virtual world" can consist of a real or imaginary room, a city, a molecule, a solar system, the interior of a human body - anything that can be modeled by a computer.

A glove is also connected to the computer. The glove contains sensors that track not only the position of the hand, but the degree of flex of the fingers. When you wear a display and a sensor-equipped glove, you can see a depiction of a hand floating in the artificial space in which you are immersed. When you move your hand or wiggle your fingers in physical space, you see the hand in artificial space move and wiggle in exactly the same way.

Acoustic spaces can also be simulated and add to the power of the illusion of being in a place that exists only inside a computer. It is also possible to use electromechanical, hydraulic, and pneumatic equipment to simulate being acted on by a force, to feel the texture of objects, and, to a limited degree, to feel the shape of objects.

The use of virtual reality as a scientific visualization tool is enough to guarantee its place in history. The microscope made biology and modern medicine possible, because it gave scientists a window onto the world of the very tiny. The telescope helped create the foundation for the Renaissance by offering a window onto the world of very distant objects, thus changing our image of humanity's place in the universe.

Virtual reality offers another window, but one that a scientist can climb through to interact directly and bodily with scientific abstractions: Virtual reality has the potential to become a microscope for the mind. …